#Fakenews - Parashat Vayigash

In 1274 BCE, Ramses II declared war on Hittite King Muwatalli II and marched with his entire army to the city of Kadesh, now part of modern-day Syria. A fierce battle raged for days before Muwatalli ordered his troops to withdraw behind the city walls and man the ramparts for a long war of attrition. Unable to support a prolonged siege, Ramses gathered what remained of his soldiers and headed meekly back to Egypt. Once safely on home turf, he starting spreading wildly exaggerated stories of his ‘crushing defeat’ of the Hittite upstarts. Within weeks, every temple worth its weight in sand had commissioned and designed vast walls of hieroglyphics depicting the stunning victory. And thus it came to pass that the very first #fakenews story in history was born. By the time Ramses returned to Kadesh 16 years later to sue for peace, his devoted subjects assumed he was on a state visit to the newly-expanded 19th Dynasty Empire, not to put quill to papyrus in signing the first documented peace treaty of all time[1].

 This week’s portion weaves the climatic final threads of a tapestry that has been our featured narrative for almost a month. Joseph, that famous character to whom Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber owes almost his entire career, remains in the guise of an authoritarian Egyptian viceroy, toying with his unsuspecting brothers by first accusing them of journeying from Canaan to spy on the land, then later cranking up the pressure by arranging it that Benjamin “steals” his personal divination goblet. We concluded last week’s portion Mikeitz with quite the cliff-hanger. The brothers stand, exhausted and confused, back in the tyrant’s throne room for the third time. Their beloved youngest brother kneels in shackles, accused of a crime that he didn’t commit. And then Judah, fourth of Leah’s seven children, a relatively insignificant piece on the board hitherto, steps forward.

“If it pleases my lord, may your servant speak but a word in my lord’s ear, and let not your anger flare up at your servant. For you are like Pharaoh himself!”[2]

What follows is a monologue that somehow provides the final contrite straw that breaks the autocratic camel’s back. Until now, Joseph has successfully perpetuated this whole charade, determined to teach his brothers a painful lesson for all of the hurt he suffered at their hands when he was but a child.

Judah breaks the façade.

He, unlike every other brother, waxes lyrical in a way that pulls at Joseph’s heartstrings, arousing his mercy and causing him to cry out with those Earth-shattering words “I am Joseph!”[3]. The selfsame Judah who formulated the idea to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place[4]. Judah, the cause of so many years, so many decades of suffering. Judah, who denied Reuben the opportunity to end the fratricide and return Joseph to Jacob’s side. Judah.

Strangely, this speech is not the first time that Judah has attempted to apologise for all that happened 22 years previously. At the end of Mikeitz, he offers a heartfelt appeal to the ‘Viceroy’, repeatedly emphasising the personal guilt he feels for the initial schism:

“What can we say to my lord? How can we speak? How can we justify ourselves? God has uncovered the sin of your servants!”[5] 

The searing soul-searching expressed here is so powerful that our sages plagiarised Judah’s first declaration and weaved it into the refrains for the Selichot supplications that are recited the world-over during the High Holiday period.

And yet, it wasn’t enough. Joseph remains steadfast, unmoved, determined still to take Benjamin as a slave as punishment for his heinous ‘crime’.

And so, the question is: what is so remarkable about Judah’s second plea – delivered this week – that it succeeded where the first failed?

Intriguingly, the most remarkable aspect of Judah’s impromptu ‘speech’ is how utterly unremarkable it is. From verse 19 to verse 34, all Judah does is recount almost verbatim everything that happened in the build-up to their fateful encounter with the Egyptian monarchy. Starting with the first conversation they had with Joseph when they first arrived in Egypt seeking to alleviate the effects of a crushing famine, he goes on to recall the conditions set in place by Joseph: that he would assume them to be spies until they returned with the supposed ‘youngest brother’ apparently still at home. Judah explains the strain this decision placed on their ageing father’s shoulders and informs Joseph of his commitment to use himself as a bargaining chip, staying behind as a slave in order to secure Benjamin’s freedom.

It is all very familiar. To Joseph as well as the reader. There is little to nothing therein that he hasn’t either heard directly or surmised quite easily. Judah’s speech is more of a concise review of an excellent play than a profound plea for penitence.

But that is precisely the point.

Conspicuously absent from Judah’s appeal are numerous ingredients that presumably would’ve made it far more effective. No mention of the pain and hardship caused by the famine. No mention of the absurdity of Joseph initially accusing a group of starving foreigners who didn’t have a homeland of spying on the mightiest empire of the era. No mention of how unfair it was to have taken Simeon hostage in order to twist the arm of reason behind emotion’s back and force them to bring Benjamin. No mention of how Benjamin himself had so blatantly been caught in a corrupt vice. Nothing.

Judah’s account is surprisingly – and in a sense refreshingly – bereft of hyperbole or exaggeration. He is interested in facts, not speculation. What’s remarkable about Judah’s speech is that, back against the wall and on the brink of disaster, he nonetheless maintains the composure to relate events as they are, not as they could be.

Joseph is a dreamer. He sees things as they could be. Joseph interprets dreams. He sees beyond what is and glimpses what may yet come to pass. And because of this, Joseph is the gatekeeper of the redemption from Egyptian slavery[6] and indeed of the final redemption of the Messianic era[7].

Judah sees things for what they are. His is a realism and honesty that disregards speculation and narrative and instead focuses on facts. It is this brutal honesty and, more specifically, the strength of character needed to avoid ‘fake news’ when it is obviously the easy way out of a predicament, that finally convinces Joseph that his brothers are in safe hands. Judah, progenitor of the Davidic dynasty, will establish a kingship established on truth, honesty and uprightness. A King that only sees what could be may have the best intentions in the world, but will remain blind to their mistakes of the present. And a King’s mistake tends to become a nation’s headache.

Not too long before Ramses II coined the hieroglyphic equivalent of #fakenews, Judah was telling the world: Don’t listen.


[1] Weir, W. ‘History’s Greatest Lies’ (2009), Fair Winds Press, Massachusetts, pp.28-41.

[2] Genesis 44:18

[3] Genesis 45:3

[4] Genesis 37:26

[5] Genesis 4: 16

[6] Genesis 50:25

[7] Talmud Succah 52a-52b

- December 21st 2017

About the Author

Rabbi Eli Birnbaum Eli studied in Talmudic College in Israel for six years before attaining rabbinic ordination from the Jerusalem Kollel. Eli completed a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. Together with his wife Naomi, Eli moved back to London to take up a position in the JLE’s campus department, setting up Lunch & Learns across London’s major campuses, as well as creating the ‘Genesis+’ program, aimed at older students and post-graduates. Following this, Eli taught Jewish Studies at Hasmonean for a year, before moving to Aish to work as an educator, primarily focused on the burgeoning Young Professional demographic and, more recently, as the Director of Education for Aish UK. Eli is a lifelong Spurs fan and an avid reader, citing his favourite book as ‘Legends of Our Time’ by Elie Weisel. Eli and his wife Naomi live in Golders Green and have three adorable children. 

More in this series

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

I Closed My Eyes….

Trial by Twitter

Track & Trace

What's in a Name

God's Jedi Mind Trick: A Star Wars Story (kind of)

The Dark Night Rises: Exodus with Tom Hardy

Gangs of New York

The Refugee Crisis: A Jewish Perspective

Smoke & Mirrors

Bo - Between a Rock and a Hard Place

#Fakenews - Parashat Vayigash

Vayeitzei - Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics

Toldot - Strength of a Thousand Men

Chayei Sara: The Sequel No-one Asked For

Vayeira: Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V

Sitting on the Fence

Noah’s Sweet Fifteen

Uniting a Fragmented World

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